I vividly remember my first class on legal research – in a time before there was a usable internet. The instructors wheeled in a book cart overloaded with numerous books that we would need to use in future legal research projects, including: case reporters from the many different court systems; digests, statute books; codes; pocket parts; legal encyclopedias; examples of loose-leaf materials; and so on. At that point it seemed to me that perhaps becoming a lawyer was beyond me. Fortunately, I was soon an expert after a summer clerkship at a law firm that was predominantly spent doing book research in a nearby state law library.
Back then, which was not so long ago, a law library was an essential tool for legal research. Perhaps that is not the case anymore – especially for those law libraries that do not employ true law librarians (who can be an incredibly useful part of a research strategy – but who, especially outside the United States where ABA rules require them, are increasingly scarce or even non-existent in law school law libraries).
While I do not agree completely with the recent title of an interesting blog post on electronic research (“Libraries are for Hobos: New Resources for Legal Research“), I suspect that if there were no comfortable study places in our law school libraries, those libraries would be empty with hardly any foot traffic. Thus, I have for a while felt that it is time to consider changing the relationship between law schools and their law libraries.
Just as we would think it highly inefficient for each law school to maintain its own text searchable legal databases (like Westlaw), so too it is now inefficient for law schools to maintain their own law libraries. Instead, the law schools within a city or region should consolidate their collections together, in the process reducing unnecessary duplication. That consolidated collection could be stored in a suitable warehouse. The consolidated library books could then be electronically identified and ordered as needed by students or academics from participating law schools and then brought to a central collection point in their law school, perhaps such distributions taking place one or more times each day. Students and academic staff could electronically search and browse the warehouse bookshelves, even delving into the table of contents of specific books (that technology already exists and is used in some libraries).
Current library space within law schools could then be more efficiently reconfigured to become dedicated study space or additional classroom space. Perhaps an office for a resident law librarian or research specialist could still be maintained within each law school (though I suspect they would be hardly used given how people today conduct their research). A consolidated library would have greater purchasing power, holding a larger more varied collection. It could employ true law librarians to manage the collection policies and strategies. It could be funded by equitable arrangements, such as an annual fee per student/academic within each law school or per average use for each law school. Local law firms and government offices could even participate, further helping to defray costs and making their own research more efficient.
True, those that like to stroll library aisles would be unhappy, but I suspect that enjoyable research technique is increasingly rare today and would be offset by the benefits of a consolidated law library: with access to a larger collection; resource savings for the law school that could be directed towards research support; the chance to hold more classes within a law building with library space converted to classrooms; and so on.
Such a change would be a radical departure from how things are and have been, but the reality is that students and younger academics increasingly do their research electronically, which does not require them to physically enter a law school’s library. Of course, consolidating law school libraries would need vision and cooperation from law schools, but after the first few regions entered into such a beneficial arrangement I am confident it would be replicated in those jurisdictions not subject to antiquated and restrictive rules (such as those imposed by the ABA on American law schools).